Take Back the Media

Stearns_spread

WHEN PROTESTS ERUPTED in Egypt this January, the first thing the Mubarak regime did was close down the nation’s internet and cell-phone service. With little more than a phone call, 80 million people were disconnected from the web. There has been a lot of debate about the role that online organizing and social networks had in catalyzing the prodemocracy movement in Egypt, but one thing is clear: the regime in power saw the free flow of information on the web as a threat.

Days later, when Egypt was able to reconnect to the internet, people in Tahrir square, the heart of the prodemocracy demonstrations, began rewiring lampposts so they could charge their cell phones and laptops. Just as messages and images began flowing back out of Egypt over the web, pro-Mubarak gangs poured into the streets of Egypt’s cities, sparking violence in what had been a largely peaceful uprising. Much of this violence was targeted at journalists. Reporters from around the globe were taken into custody or brutally attacked, and the newsrooms of Al Jazeera in Cairo were burned to the ground. Faced with the many diverse voices rising up in the streets around them, and a world that was watching, the Mubarak regime did everything it could to stop the people of Egypt from telling their story.

While extreme, what happened in Egypt is symbolic of struggles around the world and here at home in the United States. We have never had more tools at our disposal to tell our own stories, to connect with each other in new ways, and to articulate a different vision for the future. The internet has democratized media making, empowering people with cell phones and laptops to become their own publishers and to tell their stories to the world. And, as we face a confluence of unprecedented ecological and economic challenges, we have never needed those tools more than we do right now. Many of our communities, however, are struggling with an information crisis. It is a troubling paradox that while the tools to make media are growing more and more accessible, control over the media itself is narrowing further and further.

In the U.S., years of runaway media consolidation have diminished the diversity of voices on the airwaves, gutted our nation’s newsrooms, and wrested more and more media out of the hands of the people. Just a week before the demonstrations in Egypt began, the Obama administration approved one of the largest media mergers in a generation. Comcast, America’s largest residential cable and internet company, now controls NBCUniversal, one of the nation’s most popular news and entertainment studios. The combination of production and distribution into one megamedia giant means, for many of us, that one company will have unprecedented control over what we see and how we see it, online, on cable, and over the air.

This is the new face of media consolidation. The voices of our community are missing, the issues we care about aren’t covered, and the leaders we depend on aren’t held accountable. As our media becomes less local, less diverse, and less accessible, fewer and fewer citizens see or hear their stories represented. What we once called the digital divide is turning into an information gap. In response to this trend, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation launched a nationwide investigation. In their report “Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age,” the Knight commission wrote that “America needs ‘informed communities,’ places where the information ecology meets people’s personal and civic information needs.” “Information,” they argue, “is as vital to the healthy functioning of communities as clean air, safe streets, good schools, and public health.”

It’s important to remember that information is more than just data, which is always only a collection of parts and rarely provides the context that helps explain itself. Information is also storytelling, which is about composing a whole. As individuals, communities, and a nation, we define ourselves through the stories we tell. In his essay “What is a Whole Community?” Peter Forbes of the Center for Whole Communities writes, “Stories help us imagine the future differently. Stories create community, enable us to see through the eyes of other people, and open us to the claims of others. . . . Telling stories is our best hope of reflecting the kind of world we want to live in and, therefore, gives us a hope of creating it.”

The story we have been hearing from our politicians and our media is at best incomplete and at worst dangerous. The people and institutions we have relied on to tell our stories are either failing us or disappearing altogether. More than thirty thousand newspaper jobs have been lost in the last three years; the number of reporters covering state capitols has dwindled; media companies have closed foreign bureaus, shrunk science and environmental staff, and outsourced arts and literature reporting; and a full half of states have no newspaper with in-house coverage of the U.S. Congress (and therefore rely on wire services like the Associated Press).

We witness the impact of this crisis every day in the lack of local, regional, and even national coverage of vital environmental issues and debates. We see it play out in lazy reporting that values balance over truth and punditry over investigation. Consider the way media outlets consistently reiterate the talking points of climate change deniers in the face of clear scientific consensus on global warming. Or how three thousand journalists flocked to Chile to cover the rescue of the trapped miners — how many have spent time in Appalachia covering the communities trapped by mountaintop removal?

As expensive watchdog reporting and investigative journalism are replaced by cheap celebrity gossip and sensationalism, it becomes more and more difficult to find meaningful stories about our relationship to each other and to the land. Forbes reminds us that without those stories, “there is increasingly one dominant story to hear and one story to tell. The developers, the clearcutters, the advertisers will be left to enact their simple story: money is more important than life.” When it comes to understanding our place in this world and the ongoing impact we are having on the environment, it’s becoming increasingly clear that we need to start telling our own stories.

There are those who have already begun. At the end of September, activists, media makers, and engineers poured into the little town of Hudson, New York, for a rare event. Together with hundreds of local volunteers, they spent three days building a new community radio station from the ground up. After years of planning and organizing, WGXC-FM Hands-on Radio now reaches more than seventy-eight thousand potential listeners in an area of New York State where the radio dial has largely been abandoned. The station is run and programmed entirely by volunteers, giving a new voice to the local community.

The future is bright for community radio. In December, Congress passed the Local Community Radio Act, which will open up the airwaves for thousands of new nonprofit community stations across the country. That bill was the result of an incredible grassroots organizing and education campaign that spanned ten years. This campaign, and the radio stations it will make possible, is a symbol of a much larger movement to reclaim our media.

In many ways media activism is where food activism was ten years ago. While many people had been advocating for local food and local economies for a long time, it was only about a decade ago that ideas like food miles, carbon footprints, CSAs, and farmers’ markets started to take hold in the popular consciousness throughout the U.S. Now local foods are promoted everywhere from high-end restaurants to the aisles of Wal-Mart. Similarly, we are now starting to see a growing movement around local media as people begin to make the connection between the health of our communities and the health of our media. With a focus on innovation and ingenuity, and a do-it-yourself spirit akin to homesteaders, those passionate about journalism are taking matters into their own hands.

A rising wave of new nonprofit journalism efforts aims to re-create journalism in the digital age, develop new ways of supporting vital reporting, and empower local communities to tell their stories. These outlets, which exist primarily online, bring together longtime journalists, web-savvy reporters, and citizen volunteers to attempt to reinvigorate local news and fill in the gaps left behind by much of corporate media. The growth of these online-only journalism organizations highlights the fact that internet access and internet freedom are in many ways the free-speech issues of our time. As more and more news and information moves online, people around the country are coming together to establish community media centers and advocate for digital justice and digital equality.

On November 16, 2010, more than four hundred people poured into the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a public hearing on the future of the internet. Almost 40 percent of America is still not connected to high-speed internet, and New Mexico ranks forty-seventh in the U.S. for broadband access. People came from across the state to speak directly to Michael Copps, a commissioner for the Federal Communications Commission, and the testimony was as diverse as New Mexico itself. Andrea Quijada, the executive director of the Media Literacy Project, summed up the importance of the event: “With an open internet we can tell our own stories, in our own words, with our own language.”

Community radio stations, local journalism projects, digital justice coalitions — this is just the beginning. These are the seeds of a movement whose aim is to take back what is rightfully ours — our media. For too long, media has been something that happens to us. We are increasingly shrugging off our role as passive consumers and instead becoming creators of the media we want to see. Our media can connect us, inspire us, empower us, and help us build healthier communities. But first we have to reclaim it and rebuild it, from the ground up.

Josh Stearns is associate program director at Free Press, a national media reform organization. Based in western Massachusetts, he writes and speaks regularly about the intersection of media, technology, and democracy.

Comments

  1. I was a publisher of one of the first independent, hyperlocal news websites from 2005 to 2007, and wrote a local political blog until 2009. I couldn’t agree more with thrust of this article. Local communities need and want reliable, accurate, fair reporting on issues that matter to them. But there remain significant obstacles, not the least of which is that the media business model still relies on advertising from the very entities that could become the subject of an investigative report. And small local businesses don’t necessarily want their names associated with controversial matters. A non-profit model doesn’t solve the problem, because local communities may not have enough donors and readers to cover even the modest costs of a small website or radio station. Our website relied on a group of wonderful and talented writer-volunteers. But volunteers cannot do everything. Few are willing to sit through long public meetings to report on important local developments. Most are willing to write about issues they care about but not on other issues equally important to readers. In addition, people who are passionate enough to volunteer their time often (and understandably) write as advocates for their views instead of reporters of the facts. Investigative reporting is time-consuming and labor intensive, which, as you note, is costly. For that reason, many alternative news sources opt for opinion pieces and news aggregators in place of credible reporting. You are starting an important conversation, but on-the-ground efforts still need new ideas and a lot of hard work.

  2. I agree with everything that Ms. Paulson has written. It is my experience that it is just damned hard to monetize the effort to be a local op ed generator, let alone being a reporter.

    Along with everything she listed, there are two other considerations. When David Simon (The Wire) testified before Congress on the future of the new media, he made the specific point that we have lost a lot of experience. I know that I could never cover CA Water issues as well as Lloyd G. Carter who wrote about that for over 20 years with UPI and the Fresno Bee. That level of knowledge is slowly gained and only through a lot of hard work. It is very difficult to envision volunteers getting to that level.

    Then, there is the difficulty of gaining readership when there are so many existing internet sites or public access television sites that are so biased as to make Fox News look like the paragon of journalistic excellence. That is a lot of “noise” that needs to be filtered.

  3. @Althea – Thanks for your perspective, and I think you have hit the nail on the head. Neither the pure commercial nor the nonprofit model will produce the full extent of news and information our communities need. We need a media system that is far more diverse and multifaceted than the one we have right now, one that makes space for those two models and many more. I also think there is a question of local voice, local accountability and local control. This is as true in print, over broadcast and online. I’m encouraged that people are starting to lay claim to their local media in ways that put localism back at the center.

  4. @Wes Those are two great points. To the experience question there have been a range of interesting ideas to help retain longtime journalists, and also retrain them for new media skills and production. Some places like the Poynter institute are doing just that. Other longtime journalists, who have grown tired of the corporate, consolidated media model have struck out on their own and are launching new investigative journalism projects. But the sustainability of these projects is yet to be determined.

    To your other point, one encouraging trend is that the Pew research center has consistently found an increasing demand for news content – however people are reading and finding that content in new ways. The best media orgs I have seen have responded to this in part by investing deeply in community engagement, and becoming not just news providers but also vital community and civic institutions. This builds investment from the audience and introduces new people to the work. There are some great models for that (and Orion has done a lot with that through their Grassroots Network.)

  5. A really nice commentary on the state of media reform efforts. I particularly liked the comparison with food activism–and I agree. One of the strongest aspects of the various ‘food’ movements (organic, local, DIY, CSA, slow food, foodie etc.) is that they have, I think, positioned themselves outside the trap of left/right politics, and for good reason–the issues shouldnt be explicitly partisan. Yet they do speak to and are connected to larger issues about the environment, the role of individuals and communities, etc. I think many of these movements were originally tied to concepts like ‘liberal’ or ‘granola hippie’ in the 90’s, but now are mainstream. Media reform issues need to make the same journey from being perceived as partisan, to issues that all people can related to. We all need and want good local news, just like we all want fresh and healthy food.

  6. Although I agree in general on the view taken, there’s one thing missing: what about the role of technology? Protests in Egypt didn’t start or end with the digital age: just over one percent of all protesters was internet-connected. And it wasn’t about democracy either: just as the Russian revolution almost a century ago, it started with price hikes of food. Maybe it’s good to remember the words of Bertolt Brecht (though his life and career contradict his saying): erst kommt das Fressen und dann die Moral (first food, then ethics).

  7. On the subject of watchdog journalism, Bob Gibson, Executive Director of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, recently said: “If we don’t have a watchdog function, then we have a lapdog function, and that doesn’t serve the voter very well. We need journalism that goes out and challenges what is being given reporters as the facts. We need to look behind the facts and find out where they’re coming from, and what the interests are of the people who are giving us those facts. Local government and state government and the federal government today are even more than ever in the news business themselves. They are putting out news as if it was the entire package and expecting people to buy it and I think Americans have to be a little bit skeptical and have to look behind where those governments are putting out facts.” (Gibson appeared on the Charlottesville, VA, interview program Politics Matters with host Jan Paynter discussing journalism http://bit.ly/pm-gibson)

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